Victorian Aborigines

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Map of Victorian Aborigines language territories

The Indigenous Australians of Victoria, Australia occupied the land for tens of thousands of years prior to European settlement.[1] According to Gary Presland Aborigines have lived in Victoria for about 40,000 years living a semi-nomadic existence of fishing, hunting and gathering, and farming eels.[2]

The aborigines of Victoria had developed a varied and complex set of languages, tribal alliances and trading routes, beliefs and social customs that involved totemism, superstition, initiation and burial rites, and tribal moeties that regulated sexual relationships and marriage.[3][4]


There is some evidence to show that people were living in the Maribyrnong River valley, near present day Keilor, about 40,000 years ago, according to Gary Presland.[5]

At the Keilor Archaeological Site a human hearth excavated in 1971 was radiocarbon-dated to about 31,000 years BP, making Keilor one of the earliest sites of human habitation in Australia.[6] A cranium found at the site has been dated at between 12,000[7] and 14,700 years BP.[6]

Similar archaeological sites in Tasmania and on the Bass Strait Islands have been dated to between 20,000 – 35,000 years ago, when sea levels were 130 metres below present level allowing Aboriginal people to move across the region of southern Victoria and on to the land bridge of the Bassian plain to Tasmania by at least 35,000 years ago.[8][9]

There is evidence of occupation in Gariwerd - the territory of the Jardwadjali people - many thousands of years before the last ice-age. One site in the Victoria Range (Billawin Range) has been dated from 22,000 years ago.[10]

During the Ice Age about 20,000 years BP, the area now the bay of Port Phillip would have been dry land, and the Yarra and Werribee river would have joined to flow through the heads then south and south west through the Bassian plain before meeting the ocean to the west. Between 16,000 and 14,000 years BP the rate of sea level rise was most rapid rising about 50 feet in 300 years according to Peter D. Ward.[11] Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands became separated from mainland Australia around 12,000 BP, when the sea level was approximately 50m below present levels.[12] Port Phillip was flooded by post-glacial rising sea levels between 8000 and 6000 years ago.[13]

Oral history and creation stories from the Wada wurrung, Woiwurrung and Bun wurrung languages describe the flooding of the bay. Hobsons Bay was once a kangaroo hunting ground. Creation stories describe how Bunjil was responsible for the formation of the bay,[9] or the bay was flooded when the Yarra river was created (Yarra Creation Story.[14])

The Wurundjeri mined diorite at Mount William Quarry which was a source of the highly valued greenstone hatchet heads, which were highly prized and traded across a wide area as far as New South Wales and Adelaide. The mine provided a complex network of trading for economic and social exchange among the different aboriginal nations in Victoria.[15][16][17] The Quarry had been in use for more than 1,500 years and covered 18 hectares including underground pits of several metres. In February 2008 the site was placed on the National heritage list for its cultural importance and archeological value.[18]

In some areas semi-permanent huts were constructed and a sophisticated network of water channels were constructed for farming eels. During winter the Djab Wurrung encampments were more permanent, sometimes consisting of substantial huts as attested by Major Thomas Mitchell near Mount Napier in 1836:

"Two very substantial huts showed that even the natives had been attracted by the beauty of the land, and as the day was showery, I wished to return if possible, to pass the night there, for I began to learn that such huts, with a good fire between them, made comfortable quarters in bad weather."[19]

During early Autumn there were often large gatherings of up to 1000 people for one to two months hosted at the Mount William swamp or at Lake Bolac for the annual eel migration. Several tribes attended these gatherings including the Girai wurrung, Djargurd wurrung, Dhauwurd wurrung and Wada wurrung. Near Mount William, an elaborate network of channels, weirs and eel traps and stone shelters had been constructed, indicative of a semi-permanent lifestyle in which eels were an important economic component for food and bartering, particularly the Short-finned eel.[20] Near Lake Bolac a semi-permanent village extended some 35 kilometres along the river bank during autumn. George Augustus Robinson on 7 July 1841 described some of the infrastructure that had been constructed near Mount William:

" area of at least 15 acres was thus traced out... These works must have been executed at great cost of labour... There must have been some thousands of yards of this trenching and banking. The whole of the water from the mountain rivulets is made to pass through this trenching ere it reaches the marsh..."[21]

Victorian Aboriginal languages

Thirty nine aboriginal languages are likely to have been spoken in Victoria at the time of European contact, according to Ian D. Clark, although five of these languages are primarily located around the border areas with New South Wales and South Australia.[22] Clark also identified 19 sub-dialects in seven languages. The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation For Languages continues to research the work of Clark and others as well as runs programs aimed at revitalising extinct and dead Aboriginal languages.

Language or Language family Status Dialects Spoken by
Bidawal (Maap)
Boong wurrung Bunurong
Gunai Revived Brabralung, Braiakalung, Brataualung, Krauatungalung, Tatungalung Gunai
Daung wurrung Taungurong
Dhauwurd wurrung Bi:g wurrung, Dhauwurd wurrung, Gai wurrung, Gurngubanud, Wullu wurrung Gunditjmara
Dhudhuroa language (Jaithmathang) Extinct
Djab wurrung Djab wurrung, Pirtpirt wurrung, Knenknen wurrung Djab Wurrung
Djadja wurrung Dja Dja Wurrung
Djargurd wurrung Djargurd Wurrung
Gadubanud Gadubanud
Girai wurrung Girai wurrung, Wirngilgnad dhalinanong Girai wurrung
Gulidjan Extinct Gulidjan
Gundungerre (Jaithmathang)
Jardwadjali Nundadjali, Jardwadjali, Jagwadjali, Mardidjali Jardwadjali
Keramin Extinct Jarijari Jarijari, Dadi Dadi
Ngarigu Spoken ‘Southern Ngarigu’ Ngarigo
Ngurai-illam wurrung
Wadiwadi ‘Piangil’ and ‘non-Piangil’
Wathawurrung Extinct Wathaurong
Way wurru (Waveroo, Pallanganmiddang) Kwartkwart and Mogullumbidj (Minjambuta)
Wemba-Wemba Extinct Wergaia Wemba-Wemba
Wergaia Spoken Bewadjali, Buibadjali, Djadjala, Wudjubalug
Woiwurrung Spoken Wurundjeri
Yorta Yorta language (Bangarang) Dead Yorta Yorta
Yuyu (Ngindadj)

Marginal language groups in Victorian border areas with South Australia and New South Wales include Bindjali, Buandig, Jabulajabula, Ngargad, and Thawa.

There is considerable debate over the substance and location of North-eastern Victorian indigenous languages including Mogullumbidj, Dhudhuroa and Yaithmathang.[23] Howitt considered Mogullumbidj the eastern most dialect of the Kulin speaking tribes of central Victoria, but Clark argues the name is a descriptive term of appearance.[24]


  1. Richard Broome, pp xviii-xxii, Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800, Allen & Unwin, 2005, ISBN 1-74114-569-4, ISBN 978-1-74114-569-4
  2. Gary Presland, The First Residents of Melbourne's Western Region, (revised edition), Harriland Press, 1997. ISBN 0-646-33150-7.
  3. Colin Leslie Dean, The Religions of the Pre-contact Victorian Aborigines, Gamahucher Press, Geelong West, Geelong, Victoria, Australia, 1998. Accessed on 10 September 2011
  4. James Dawson, (1881) Australian Aborigines:the languages and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Originally published George Robertson Melbourne in 1881, Facsimile edition AIAS 1981.
  5. Gary Presland, pg1, Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People, Harriland Press (1985), Second edition 1994, ISBN 0-9577004-2-3. This book describes in some detail the archaeological evidence regarding aboriginal life, culture, food gathering and land management
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gary Presland, Keilor Archaeological Site, eMelbourne website. Accessed 3 November 2008
  7. Peter Brown, The Keilor Cranium, Peter Brown's Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, Accessed 3 November 2008
  8. Hanna Steyne, Investigating the Submerged Landscapes of Port Phillip Bay, Victoria Heritage Victoria, Accessed 3 November 2008
  9. 9.0 9.1 David Rhodes, Terra Culture Heritage Consultants, Channel Deepening Existing Conditions Final Report - Aboriginal Heritage, Prepared for Parsons Brinckerhoff & Port of Melbourne Corporation, August 2003. Accessed 3 November 2008
  10. Parks Victoria, Management Plan for Grampians National Park, 2003, ISBN 0-7311-3131-2 . Accessed 19 November 2008
  11. Peter D. Ward, pp30, The Flooded Earth. Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps, Basic Books, New York, 2010, ISBN 978-0-465-00949-7
  12. Hanna Steyne, Investigating the Submerged Landscapes of Port Phillip Bay, Victoria Heritage Victoria, who sources (Lambeck & Chappell 2001) Accessed 3 November 2008
  13. Hanna Steyne, Investigating the Submerged Landscapes of Port Phillip Bay, Victoria Heritage Victoria, who sources(Bird 1993, Bowler 1966, Holdgate et al. 2001). Accessed 3 November 2008
  14. Ian Hunter, Yarra Creation Story, Wurundjeri Dreaming. Recorded 2004-5. Accessed 3 November 2008
  15. Isabel McBryde, Kulin Greenstone Quarries: The Social Contexts of Production and Distribution for the Mt William Site, in World Archaeology, Vol. 16, No. 2, Mines and Quarries (Oct. 1984), pp. 267-285 (article consists of 19 pages) Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Accessed 3 November 2008
  16. Isabel Ellender and Peter Christiansen, pp44, People of the Merri Merri. The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days, Merri Creek Management Committee, 2001 ISBN 0-9577728-0-7
  17. Gary Presland, Aboriginal Melbourne. The lost land of the Kulin people, Harriland Press, 1985. New edition 2001. ISBN 0-9577004-2-3
  18. National Heritage List, Mount William Stone Hatchet Quarry, Australian Government, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Accessed 3 November 2008
  19. Major Mitchell quoted in Two Native Tribes Shared Shire Area Shire of Mt. Rouse Centenary booklet, 1964, as detailed by the MT. Rouse & District Historical Society website, 20 October 2007. Accessed 25 November 2008
  20. Victorian Eel Fishery - Management Plan Accessed 25 November 2008
  21. Harry Lourandos, pp63-65, Continent of Hunter-gatherers: New Perspectives in Australian Prehistory, Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-521-35946-5
  22. Ian D. Clark, Aboriginal Language Areas in Victoria – a reconstruction, A Report to the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation For Languages, 25 August 2005. Accessed 10 September 2011
  23. Ian D. Clark, 2009 Dhudhuroa and Yaithmathang languages and social groups in north-east Victoria – a reconstruction., in Aboriginal History, Volume 33, 2009, ANU E-Press. Accessed 10 September 2011
  24. Ian d. Clark, 2010, Aboriginal language areas in Northeast Victoria 'Mogullumbidj' reconsidered, Victorian historical journal / Royal Historical Society of Victoria.: 2010, 81 , 2, pg 181-192. Accessed article abstract on 10 September 2011


  • Peter Beveridge (1889) The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina, (Reprinted 2008, Lowden Publishing Co., Vic, ), ISBN 978-1-9207-530-8-5
  • Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800, Allen & Unwin, 2005, ISBN 1-74114-569-4, ISBN 978-1-74114-569-4
  • Ian Clark, (c. 1990) Aboriginal languages and clans :an historical atlas of western and central Victoria, 1800-1900, Dept. of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Melbourne, Vic.
  • J. Dawson, (1881) Australian Aborigines:the languages and customs of several tribes of Aborigines in the western district of Victoria, Australia, Originally published George Robertson Melbourne in 1881, Facsimile edition AIAS 1981.
  • Sue Wessen, An Historical Atlas of the Aborigines of Eastern Victoria and Far South-eastern New South Wales, Monash University Publications in Geography and Environmental Science Number 53, 2000, Monash University, Vic. ISBN 0-909685-68-1